Friday, January 13, 2012

Healthy Soils, Healthy Foods

One would assume there is little happening on the farm in January but actually quite a bit is happening. Like most farmers, we are passionate about being good stewards of our soil. The soil is our livelihood. Without the highest quality dirt, we cannot grow the highest quality foods or stay in the family business that we love. We spend as much time improving our soils as we do growing crops. We consider that the most sustainable farming practice. Our goal is to leave the soil in better condition that we received it so the next generation can have a healthy, profitable family farm.

To that end, the crop we are growing this winter is “cover crops”. There are several categories of cover crops including: Cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats, rye, and triticale; Brassica crops such as rapeseed and tillage or Daikon radishes; and Legume crops like crimson clover, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas. Though each are different, cover crops are meant to improve the soil by reducing erosion and nutrient losses, add “green manure” or nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and build soil structure or what we farmers call “tilth”. Basically, we want our ground to feel like your walking on a shag carpet. (yes I know the word “shag” dates me…!)

Since farm equipment is very heavy, it is critical to us to keep our “tilth” by managing our soil. We practice “No-Till” farming on most all our fields. No-till means we do not plow or turn the ground over, but plant the seeds directly into the ground which still has last year’s crop particles (like chopped up corn stalks) all over the ground. No-Till farming not only builds up our soil but also reduces our carbon footprint by reducing the number of times we drive equipment across the field, which reduces the amount of fuel we use.

We use organic fertilizer like manure or chicken litter when its available and only apply what the crop needs for nutrients to grow. Crops, like humans, need “food” that contains vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Things like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, calcium, boron, iron, magnesium, manganese, sulfur, and many other nutrients are found in the soil and are used by plants for growth, fruit and seed development, photosynthesis, root structure, plant health, and other life-supporting functions for healthy plants.

 A couple of examples:

Boron is a critical nutrient in fruit development. We apply boron to the soil for our grape crop so that the vines produce consistent, uniform berries on a cluster. Boron is critical in what we call “fruit set” or uniform clusters. Have you ever bought a cluster of grapes that isn’t uniform? If so, the soil where it is grown could be deficient in boron.

Plants need potassium, which we apply to the soil in the form of potash. Tomatoes have a high demand for potassium. Potassium is critical in assisting with the movement of water, nutrients and carbohydrates through out all the tissues of the plant. 

Calcium benefits “structure” as in your bones and tissues as well as plant tissues and structure. Soybeans benefit from adequate calcium to promote plant health and produce high quality beans. We apply lime in the fall not only to balance the pH of the soil but also so that calcium is readily available to the spring crops like soybeans.

Soil provides the food source or nutrition for crops to grow. Soil to farmers is like food to you. Much like your doctor (or dietitian!) can look at your lab results and assess your health, so too can we farmers read soil reports and determine the health of our soil. We only apply what the soil tests show is needed. There is no "multi-vitamin" application of nutrients to the soil "just in case". The soil gets "prescribed" exactly what it needs. As I said in my intro blog, being a farmer is being a health care professional for the dirt we are stewards of. It is in our best interest to maintain the health of our soil to grow healthy foods for you to buy as well as to maintain a profitable family farm for future generations.

Healthy soils = Healthy crops = Healthy foods. Your farmer is the one who makes that happen.

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